Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the most famous high school basketball game in Washington area history. On Jan 30, 1965, DeMatha did what many considered impossible – it knocked off New York City’s Power Memorial and its star seven-foot center Lew Alcindor, who later became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.
DeMatha’s victory ended Power’s 71-game winning streak and trained a previously unimaginable spotlight on high school basketball in general and DeMatha’s burgeoning program in particular.
There were actually two games between the two schools – both played at the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House. Each game was a sellout, with more than 12,000 fans in attendance. The first of the two games ended in a narrow victory for the visiting New Yorkers. The second, of course, went to DeMatha.
Here’s an account of the rivalry and the circumstances surrounding the games, adapted from a book I’m working on about D.C. area high school basketball: The working title is The Capital of Basketball.
By the end of the 1962-63 season, Morgan Wootten was looking for new worlds to conquer. At that point, DeMatha had won three straight Catholic League titles, three straight Knights of Columbus tournament titles and a pair of Eastern States Catholic Invitational Tournament titles. The Stags’ three-year record was an astonishing 92-8.
Because of his phenomenal success, Wootten had become the preeminent high school basketball coach in the area. Folks who follow basketball far and wide were becoming familiar with DeMatha and its dynamic coach.
But he wanted more. He wanted DeMatha to be recognized nationally, not just locally, so he went after the biggest prize of all – a game against Power Memorial of New York City and seven-foot Lew Alcindor, probably the most-hyped prep basketball player ever.
Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and became the leading scorer in NBA history, had already been profiled in Time magazine by that point and was sought by every college in the country. He wound up at UCLA, of course, where he led the Bruins to three straight NCAA titles.
Wootten wanted him to, just not in the same way every college in the country did. Wootten wanted to take on Alcindor as an opponent, to provide his own team and program with the ultimate challenge.
“To be the best, you have to beat the best,” Wootten insisted.
Prior to the 1963-64 season, Wootten contacted Jack Donahue, Power’s coach, and proposed a game. The two teams would meet at the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House, in a marquee matchup – Washington’s best against New York’s best – that seemed sure to draw a huge crowd. Power had won 46 straight games coming in; the Stags’ streak stood at 23.
As the game drew closer, Wootten decided on a simple strategic approach against the Power seven-footer: Play Alcindor – averaging 28 points per game – more or less straight-up, while trying to limit the rest of Power’s lineup.
“We will use a man-for-man defense and (6-foot-8) Bob Whitmore will guard Alcindor,” Wootten announced. “But we plan to give him some help.”
The enormity of DeMatha’s task became all too clear at a special dinner the evening before the game that brought both teams together. When it came time for the invocation, everyone in the room stood up – including Alcindor.
As the New York giant rose from his chair, DeMatha forward Sid Catlett elbowed his buddy Whitmore in the ribs to get his attention and nodded toward Alcindor.
“He just kept going up and up – like a rocket ship,” Whitmore recalled. “And my heart started going down, down, down. I’m realizing I have to contend with this guy at 6-7 or 6-8.”
Whitmore’s worst fears were realized. Alcindor was every bit as good as advertised. He dominated inside, scoring 35 points on 16-for-24 shooting. He also grabbed 17 rebounds and was clearly the difference in Power’s 65-62 victory.
“We figured he wasn’t good enough to beat us all by himself,” Wootten recalled. “But he was.”
DeMatha led for much of the game, but got a tough break when Whitmore fouled out in the closing minutes. A 5-foot-9 guard named Charlie Farrugia hit a couple of key baskets late for the visitors and Power escaped. But clearly, DeMatha proved – if anyone still needed convincing – that it could play with anyone.
Wootten couldn’t have asked for anything more from his team or the game – excepting, perhaps, victory. The game was a sellout, with 12,500 squeezed inside Cole and thousands more turned away at the door.
Having come so close, Wootten was determined to get another crack at Power and Alcindor. Donahue readily accepted the challenge. He was pleased with the size of the crowd and the big-game atmosphere. Power’s continued excellence was old hat back home. With so many other social and athletic options available to them in Gotham, New Yorkers didn’t consider high school basketball that big a deal.
“We never get these kinds of crowds in New York,” Donahue said.
With a rematch on the horizon, DeMatha became Power’s biggest booster. Wootten wanted the New Yorkers unbeaten when they came back to Cole in January 1965, and he made sure his own team didn’t slip up in the interim, either.
He got his wish. Power’s winning streak stood at 71 when it arrived in Washington for the rematch and DeMatha boasted a 23-game winning streak of its own. The last game the Stags had lost was to Power.
If anything, the rematch was an even bigger deal. Alcindor was a senior by then, his legend growing with each successive game. Cole Field House was sold out a week in advance and on the night of the game, scalpers were getting $25 for a ticket.
In preparing for that second matchup, Wootten decided a change in strategy was in order. He opted to double-team Alcindor every chance he could, using the 6-foot-8 Catlett and 6-foot-3 Bernie Williams to come over and help the 6-foot-8 Whitmore from the weak side. Wootten wanted a man (Whitmore) in front of Alcindor, denying him the ball and the position he wanted. Another forward would position himself behind Alcindor, between the Power star and the basket. “A hero sandwich,” Wootten called it.
The tactic might not have worked for everyone. But DeMatha possessed considerable size with those three and they made it difficult for Alcindor to catch the ball on his preferred spots on the floor. Wootten also instructed his backcourt to pressure the Power guards, making it difficult to get the ball inside.
Over the years, much has been said about DeMatha’s unique practice regimen leading up to the Power Memorial showdown. Wootten had Catlett wielding a tennis racquet on defense in practice in preparation for Alcindor. The ploy was designed to get the Stags to put more arc on their shots, so that Alcindor’s reach might not seem too intimidating under game conditions. But the key to DeMatha’s 46-43 upset victory in the rematch – the biggest high school basketball game in Washington area history – wasn’t DeMatha’s shooting. It was DeMatha’s defense.
The magnitude and pregame hype of the rematch seemed to affect both teams; neither shot particularly well. The winning Stags were just 17-for-55 from the floor and the halftime score was just 23-22, DeMatha. But their defense on Alcindor was stout enough to enable Wootten to pull an upset for the ages.
Alcindor finished with just 16 points – 14 below his average – and 14 rebounds. He was able to attempt just 11 shots, thanks to Whitmore’s ability to deny him the ball and the guards’ ability to cut off the passing lanes.
“It was definitely a team victory,” Whitmore said. “The rest of the team made my job easier. ”
“It was not a single-person effort by any means,” agreed Catlett. “It was a collaborative effort. Depending on where he was, there were always two people on him. We’d beat him to a spot, take him out of his comfort zone and away from the particular places on the floor he liked, move him further out. It worked.”
Catlett was the offensive star in the low-scoring, defensive struggle. He scored seven of his team-high 13 points in the last four minutes, including a tip-in for a 43-38 lead in the final minute that essentially clinched the game.
Alcindor was impressive, even in defeat. As DeMatha whooped it up in the locker room after the monumental victory, Alcindor led his vanquished teammates over from their own locker room to congratulate the victors. It wasn’t the only loss of Alcindor’s high school career, as has been written so many times; Power dropped a couple of games during his freshman year with the varsity. But still, it had to hurt to make that walk – something everyone in that DeMatha locker room appreciated.
“I always had the utmost respect for Lew and the way he carried himself,” Whitmore said. “For him to come into the locker room and congratulate us – that was classy, as classy as it gets.”
Donohue must have been just as stung by the loss, although Power rebounded to win the New York City title later that season. The upset got written up in the New York Times the next day, and the Power coach was just as gracious as his star player in defeat.
“You’ve got a hell of a team,” he reportedly told Wootten. “And it took a hell of a team to beat us.”